VA Secretary Focuses on Continuum of Care
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 21, 2008 Five months after taking the helm of the nation’s second-largest Cabinet department, the secretary of veterans affairs laid out his priorities and talked of transitioning the organization to meet the needs of veterans today as well as those of the next generation.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Dr. James B. Peake, a retired Army lieutenant general and a cardiac surgeon, spoke at the National Press Club here yesterday.
The Vietnam veteran and former Army surgeon general said he is focusing on providing a better transition of care, enabling more efficient claims processing, leveraging information technology and poising the department for the future.
Peake said he sees his department working more closely with others, such as the Defense Department, to provide a continuum of care for troops leaving the military.
“We're, for the first time in quite a while, in a shooting war where we have soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines coming back from a combat zone,” he said.
His department’s focus, Peake said, should be on “helping those men and women who are returning from overseas to be able to reintegrate into society, to reintegrate with their family members, to reintegrate with their employers and with their communities.”
Some 837,000 combat veterans, active and reserve, have separated from the military since the start of operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom and are now veterans, he said. He wants to make sure those who qualify tap into his department’s wealth of resources such as compensation, rehabilitation, and educational benefits. All are part in some ways of “social determinants of health,” Peake said.
Key to providing those benefits is streamlining the department’s claims processing, which called a “complicated system” and one that is important because it opens the door to the department’s many services. Some 650,000 disability claims are backlogged, and it now takes about 183 days for a claim to be processed.
The VA is adding more than 3,000 people to its 263,000-person work force to help process claims, Peake said. He is also working to improve the system. A veteran shouldn’t have to “be a lawyer to understand your benefit or be a lawyer to get your benefit,” he said.
Leveraging technology could be key in cutting down claims processing times, he said. Already, the VA has what Peake called the “best electronic medical record” system available. Still, the system is old and will eventually need to be upgraded.
“We're sort of a Fortune 15 company, and when I look at the other systems that we have, I think we are way down on the totem pole,” he said. “We've got some work that we need to do, whether it's in financial systems, whether it's in [human resources] systems or whether it's in applying modern technology to that claims process.”
An investment in technology also is needed to provide services to today’s veteran, who is more computer- and Internet-savvy than those of wars past.
“They're Web-enabled, and that's how they're used to communicating and dealing,” Peake said. “And we've got to make sure that as we move forward we [don’t] think of servicing people like me. We're thinking of how we're going to service folks like them.”
But beyond technology, Peake said he sees the VA’s future developing more partnerships with other departments and agencies.
“I think we're going to, like any business relationship, … restructure the partnerships so that we get what we need and our veterans get what they need and the academic affiliates get what they need. And I think there's opportunity to do more sharing of services,” he said. “I've been on the other side, and I think that we can do more, even with this collaborative work with the Department of Defense.”
Hiring more veterans and developing services for the increased number of female veterans also is key to the organization’s future, he said.
Still, even as the VA transitions, it must consider the needs of each generation of veterans, Peake said. World War II, Vietnam and Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans all need different types of services and intervention, depending on where each is in their own lives, he said.
“When you start looking at VA 30 years, 40 years down the road, it's going to look different. It's got to look different. And so we need to be thinking about how to get that right for the next 60 years,” he said.
“It's about giving the care to people that need it -- what they need, when they need it, in the way that is comfortable for them to get it,” Peake said.
Of the 24 million veterans currently alive, nearly three-quarters served during a war or an official period of conflict. About a quarter of the nation's population, nearly 74.5 million people, are potentially eligible for VA benefits and services because they are veterans, family members or survivors of veterans, according to the VA Web site.